The Words We Use

Have you ever had a disagreement with someone only to find out that you both agree on the same concept or principle, but you just don’t agree on semantics and vocabulary definitions? Author Colin Wright looked at this phenomenon within relationships in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. Wright has three rules regarding communication in relationships and his first rule is to keep in mind how other people use vocabulary different.

My college undergraduate major was Spanish, and I took linguistic classes in English and Spanish, so I am always drawn to conversations and discussions surrounding the use of language to express complex ideas with random sounds organized together. I love the different uses of language across a nation or across multiple nations, so Wright’s first rule of relationship communication is a natural fit for me. In describing his rule he writes, “The vocabularies we use for things are different from person to person, and as such, incredibly important words like “relationship” and “love” and even “communication” will mean something slightly, or vastly different to each individual who uses them.”

It is not often that we discuss how language is used with the people in our lives, and in daily conversation we certainly don’t often dive into questions regarding the different meanings we all have with the same set of words. Wright’s description of vocabulary means that we are living in an unavoidable world of telephone, where the words can be the same, but what has been said is different from person to person.

Being honest and open in relationships requires strong communication practices that can be inhibited when we are not discussing the same idea with the same concepts arising from the same meaning in the vocabulary we use. It is worth being more aware of one’s own vocabulary to better recognize situations where communication is taking place, but miscommunication is obstructing the meaning of what is being said.
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Connecting with Technology

It is easy to become wrapped up in the criticisms and shortcoming of technology, especially when criticizing technology also allows us to criticize younger generations and place our age cohort on a shining pedestal, but we should also consider how technology is at times neither good nor bad, but just different. Author Colin Wright provides a unique view into the use of technology for connection and communication in his book, Come Back Frayed.  He writes about the freedom that technology provides him and how it allows him to live a life that previously was not possible.

 

“I can be whomever I want because there’s no one to regulate me, to passively or intentionally box me in, to pressure me into becoming an archetype of myself.
    In real life, the line is not so clear.”

 

His quote comes after he explains the freedom granted to him by technology and his life style. The technology allows him to produce content from anywhere on the planet and to sell his work across the globe. It allows him to get away from typical work schedules, and allows him to have any office anywhere he has decent internet connections. His life is no longer dictated by demands that many people face like mortgages, regular job hours, or a commute. Without a family Wright is also able to explore and live without expectations from others allowing his work to take the shape that he wants wherever on the globe he lives.

 

On its own, the above paragraph is not very insightful. After having read much of Wrights work however, additional possibilities  provided to Wright by technology begin to jump out. He describes himself as a major introvert, preferring time to himself over time with others. Before technology he probably could have managed his time on his own well, but he certainly could not have had the same experiences and freedoms. When we criticize technology for allowing people to communicate and interact without ever truly meeting and knowing each other, we are ultimately just criticizing people for not communicating the way we want them to or expect ourselves to communicate. For those who would struggle without technology, there is a real power in the communicative possibilities provided. Perhaps these individuals would have adjusted and still found success in the pre-internet communication world, but we should recognize the new opportunities it provides to interact in the world and be active and engaged human beings despite shy tendencies.

Exchanging Ideas with Others

“Today, I’m of the opinion that if you want to reach someone, to really communicate in a language they understand and trust, you have to be more flexible.” Colin Wright expresses this idea early in his book Come Back Frayed to introduce some of the changes he has experienced in the mediums we use to communicate in the 21st century.

 

Wright’s book is an exploration of his time spent living in the Philippines, detailing how he has learned to adjust to challenging climates, new cultures, and new demands on his time as an author connected to the world in a sea of evolving media. “There was a time when people who watched videos online were a mystery to me, and I was content to write words I hoped to someday convince someone to read. There was a time when I felt my writing, vocabulary encoded with twenty-six bit alphabetic iconography, was the sole practical and relevant mechanism I had of presenting and exchanging ideas with others.”

 

Together his quotes show the varied nature of communication today, and the importance of learning to reach people through a variety of channels and formats. My blog started as simply a means for me to return to my reading and to think more deeply about passages that initially stood out to me, and so I never thought of trying to reach others and amass an audience. But communicating with others is something I enjoy to do and intend to make part of my future career. Learning to use and understand different formats of media will help me not just send a message to other people, but to understand others in a more profound way.

 

What I truly enjoy about the quotes above from Wright, is that his goal is not to reach more people through new technology just to drive his content and sell people more stuff. Wright’s goal is to actually exchange ideas with other people. I am not good at social media and dislike the quickness with which a lot of our thinking and decision making is done today, but the tools we have certainly do allow us to exchange new ideas in new manners.

 

I think there are areas where individuals can change their habits of consumption, and groups can change their methods of delivering ideas to increase knowledge and help improve perceptions and relationships across society.

 

I am studying toward a Masters in Public Administration through the Political Science Department at the University of Nevada, but one certainly does not need to study politics to see that the general public is distrustful of technocratic knowledge delivered from policy think-tanks considered out of touch with our mainstream population. Better understanding of how we can use our technology as individuals to find helpful information and avoid information silos can reduce this resentment, but at the same time, a better understanding of the ways people communicate today will help academics, policy researchers, and people in government administration better share their ideas, thoughts, challenges, and perspectives with the general public in a way that can build new foundations of trust.

 

Like Wright, the goal must be to further develop the exchange of information and to develop greater knowledge on the end of the person delivering the message as well as the person consuming the message. A driving goal of increased profits would ultimately lead Wright to failure, but a mission of flexible learning will open new perspectives to lead to true development. This idea is true for Wright, and may be true for agencies, companies, researchers, and others who want their thoughts to have a greater impact on the planet.

Can We Change the Thoughts of Others?

A topic that has come up again and again for me since the November 2016 election is the idea that we may not be able to change anyones thinking through discussion, debate, or argument. People become so entrenched in beliefs, and are so reluctant to hearing information that does not support their opinion that we are not able to change anyone’s thought patterns besides our own. Author Ryan Holiday addresses this idea in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, by writing,

“You don’t convince people by challenging their longest and most firmly held opinions. You find common ground and work from there. Or you look for leverage to make them listen. Or you create an alternative with so much support from other people that the opposition voluntarily abandons its views and joins your camp.”

I think that Holiday is correct, but I think the real message from his quote above is the idea that you must find common ground with another before you look to change the way they think. People will discredit those who think differently from them and ignore information, even an Everest sized mountain of information indicating their views are incorrect. Speaking with people, listening to their views, understanding why they think a certain way, and offering our perspective are the only ways to honest communicate with others.

I recently listened to episode 174 of the podcast, Decode DC, and they brought on a guest to discuss this exact problem. The show features an interview with Canadian professor Jeremy Frimer from the University of Winnipeg who did a study of American’s and beliefs. He offered participants 10 dollars to read 8 statements disagreeing with their views, or 7 dollars to read 8 statements that were in line with their views. About 60 percent of people chose less money and read the statements that reinforced their views. In the episode, Dr. Frimer offers the same advice as Holiday, you must listen to the other person, understand their views, and identify your commonality before you can begin to discuss differences.

I believe we have begun to attach politics to our identify in a new way, and our social media infused world tells us that we should have a voice and opinion for any given situation. With political ideology being incorporated with our identity, political views seem to be coupled with who we are in a dangerous entrenched manner. We feel compelled to be resolute in our identity, and any information that does not align is a threat to our fundamental being. I don’t have fully developed thoughts and ideas on how social media and a pressure to build political ideology have become infused with our ideology, but if my ideas are correct, then the only way to have a civil discussion with someone is to follow the advice of Holiday and Frimer and disarm first ourselves when discussing our differences (especially political) with another person.

Bargains

In his book about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, author Joel Achenbach explains the steps that were taken by both BP and the United States Government to solve the problem of the broken well leaking oil thousands of feet below the surface.  Our government eventually established a think tank task force of the best scientific minds in the country to address the problem in part by viewing it from new and unique perspectives.  One of the scientists brought on board was Dr. Steven Chu from Stanford University, and Achenbach explains why he was such a good addition to the team by referencing a graduation speech from Dr. Chu that outlined the way he thought about interacting with others in  the world.

 

In his speech Chu said, “In your future life, cultivate a generous spirit. In all negotiations, don’t bargain for the last, little advantage. Leave the change on the table. In your collaborations, always remember that ‘credit’ is not a conserved quantity. In a successful collaboration, everybody gets ninety percent of the credit.”

 

I really enjoy what Dr. Chu states in his quote and I think our society would benefit from hearing his quote more often. Whether it is scientific discussion, presidential politics, business negotiations, or marriage, trying to win any negotiation and take 100% of the credit will cut out some of the people with interest and input in the discussion.  Trying to instead find the best path to move forward while presenting an honest and valid view of world will help all parties advance.  Dr. Chu was invaluable to the BP oil spill team of scientists because of the way he could help arbitrate discussions and ideas for shutting the well. He was quick thinking, witty, encouraging of discussion, and also had everyone’s best interest in mind.

 

What the BP oil spill crisis showed was that no one could take 100% of the blame for the disaster, and that no one could take 100% of the credit for its solution. When we narrow our view of the situation we start to look at the problem in a black and white view, and we instantly start to assign wholesale blame and complete credit to single actors. We are much better off if we learn from the mistakes and see the ways in which everyone shared in the decisions that lead to the disaster, but also recognize the ways in which everyones’ actions lead to a joint solution.

What is in Crude Oil?

When we think of crude oil we probably don’t think of much unless we are somehow connected to a science or oil career.  Our image of pumping oil from the ground or from the ocean floor probably involves some sort of pipe with black sludge flowing out of it.  What Joel Achenbach explains in his book A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea is that the oil, and the process of pumping that oil, is far more complex than what we imagine.  To help us understand what happened during the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, he spends time detailing what exactly comes out of the ground when pumping oil, and what must be sent back into the ground to replace what comes up.  We don’t just pull up oil as we drill, but we get gas, water, sand, and more, and the men and women working on the oil rigs must account for everything that comes through the pipe.

 

When it comes to the crude oil itself, Achenbach writes about what actually composes the sludge. “There is no single hydrocarbon molecule named “oil.” There is, however, benzene, toluene, m-Xylene, n-heptylbenzene, indene, indan, naphthalene, tetralin, biphenyl, acenaphthylene, flourene, pyrene, chrysene, benzopyrene, pentacene – these just being a partial list of typical aromatic hydrocarbons found in crude oil. There are also hydrocarbon cases: predominantly methane, but also ethane, propane, butane, pentane, hexane, and heptane, and there are other gases mixed in with the hydrocarbons—gases that have more than just hydrogen sulfide, and helium. One also finds traces of phosphorus, iron, nickel, and vanadium.”

 

He details the contents of the crude oil to show that what we pump from the ground is incredibly varied, and hard to predict because of the wide array of compounds often contained.  When BP and scientists around the world raced to close the well in the Gulf of Mexico gushing oil into the ocean, they had to consider the nature of the oil.  Understanding what is in the substance helps us know how it will react to specific situations and how it will behave under different conditions. It also helped us to better understand what the oil would do when it diffused into the ocean.

 

I like the quote above about the oil because it serves to show how large of a disconnect exists in our world between insiders and outsiders when it comes to things like science, technology, and industry.  Achenbach’s book is full of examples of the complex process and nature of drilling for oil that the general population is not aware of.  I spend a lot of time consuming science podcast and blogs, but even then I have only a superficial understanding of any scientific field. Our experts know increasingly more about how our world operates, but that knowledge is increasingly hidden from the general public who is too busy, too stressed, and too preoccupied to learn and engage in scientific studies that use complex language and focus on seemingly obscure subjects. What we must demand as a population is better science communication to help us understand how our engineered world operates.  We must find time to focus on understanding at least part of the complex world around us, if for no reason other than to appreciate the work of science. It may never help me to know that there are so many varieties of contents in crude oil, but it may help me better understand the science that goes into refining oil, and it may help me accept the prices that I pay when I  fuel up my car.

Expectations and Boundaries

Fred Kiel addresses the importance of leaders and how they transmit their values and beliefs throughout their leadership teams in his book Return on Character.  He explains that it is important for leaders to hold strong moral values and principles, but he also explains the importance of leaders sharing those values and building them into the ethos of a company in a way that is clear and concise, and easy to connect with for everyone in the company.

 

Kiel explains the importance of leaders being able to clearly communicate their values and expectations in the following quote, “While most people are well intentioned, they also need to have clarity about expectations and boundaries.  If a leader claims that “integrity is the cornerstone of our culture” but fails to spell out exactly what that means in practice, then the claim has little weight or purpose.” What this shows that we must take lofty ideas and connect them back to the basic and every day actions of those within our teams.  Connecting the core values back to the basic process of every employee becomes vital so that the culture and the key values that the leader wants to develop within an organization can manifest in everything that a team does.  Having a leader who can demonstrate how those core values relate fit in with the business can help an organization in a trickle down manner.  The CEO can build those values into the decisions and actions of his leadership team, who can distill those values in practical manners to management levels throughout the company, and those team managers can build those values into the actions of those who they guide and work with.

 

While explaining this process Kiel admits that rules and core values do not fit nicely into a black and white dichotomy, but that there are wide gray areas. He argues that developing character throughout the company will help leaders make decisions that better align with the core values of the company when situations fall within these gray areas.  Having leadership and management teams that display character habits that are in line with the companies core values can help everyone from the CEO to the newest employee understand what is expected and how to act in a way that bolsters the company’s core values as opposed to feigning to adhere to company values.